By Yasmeen Hassan, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Yasmeen Hassan is Global Director of Equality Now, a non-governmental organization focused on the rights of women and girls. The views expressed are her own.
I grew up in Lahore, Pakistan and witnessed firsthand the destruction of the fiber of a society through discrimination. The introduction in 1979 of so-called Islamic laws effectively made women second class citizens and encouraged myriad forms of violence and discrimination against them. Women’s testimony in many cases became equivalent to half that of a man, women were not able to sign financial documents on their own, and women who were raped were punished under adultery/fornication laws when they could not produce eye witnesses to the rape.
I strongly believe that Pakistan’s current situation, with its economy and infrastructure in shambles and rising terrorism and political instability, stems directly from the decisions made more than three decades ago. And I also believe that the inspiring words of Martin Luther King, who delivered a landmark speech on race discrimination sixty years ago, speak to the plight today of women and girls who are too often subjugated on the basis of their sex.
Indeed, the gender and race equality movements have very similar agendas. What Martin Luther King fought for in the early 1960s is similar to what we are fighting for today – nothing more complex than the ability to fully participate in and contribute to society, without the threat of violence or discrimination. The anniversary today of his “I have a dream” speech is a good reminder of that.
Over the last twenty years or so, our struggle to get women’s rights integrated into the general human rights framework – and to have key decision making institutions (including bodies of the United Nations, the World Bank, and various regional and national level bodies) recognize the importance of issues related to women and girls – has been very fruitful. Every major institution and government has at the very least acknowledged the issues of discrimination and violence against women and many have committed to working on these issues.
There has also been significant progress at national levels, with many countries revising their laws and policies and adopting new protective laws – as of 2011, 125 countries had laws against domestic violence, 117 had laws against sexual harassment, 19 out of 28 African countries where female genital mutilation is practiced had laws against it and as of 2012, 134 had laws against trafficking.
We had a hand in not only getting many of these laws passed, but also in helping grassroots women’s rights groups ensure that these are used to create an impact on the ground. We continue in this effort to make equality a reality for women and girls on the ground, and while our struggle is far from over, as a global movement, our achievements are inspiring.
However, the last few years have been challenging. With the global economic downturn, and with political instability in many parts of the world, including internal and cross border conflicts, we are seeing a significant backlash over women’s and girls’ rights that will have adverse consequences for the world.
True, there have been positives – the 2012 World Development report recognized gender equality as a core development objective in its own right as well as “smart economics.” A ground-breaking study “Sex and World Peace” established that the level of peacefulness in society is directly linked to the treatment of women – generally speaking, the more equally women are treated, the less likely there is internal strife or external aggression. This underscores what we in the “movement” have known forever – that working for equality for women and girls is not only the right thing to do, it is essential for poverty alleviation, development and peace and security – some of the key issues of contemporary society.
And while the attack on women’s rights continues – from attempts to take away women’s rights in countries emerging from the so-called “Arab spring” to the attack on reproductive rights in the United States and elsewhere – the beacon of hope is women and girls who raise their voices against injustice and strive, often against odds, to change the world for the better.
Most notable among these is Malala Yousafzai, also of Pakistan, who was shot and almost killed by the Taliban for asserting the right of girls to an education. A few weeks ago, I had the honor of attending her 16th birthday and was more than inspired by her strength, courage and belief in doing what she can to change the world.
Malala is not alone.
There are many others who through raising their voices against injustice are changing the paradigm: 13-year-old Makeda took the Ethiopian government to task for failing to provide her with justice when she was abducted, raped and forced into marriage, and ten years later continues to fight for justice; 11-year-old Wafa fought for and won a divorce from her adult husband in Yemen, where there are no laws against child marriage; 15-year-old Mary took on the Zambian government after it failed to take action when her teacher raped her in school and got a landmark ruling in her case; and 15-year-old Mariam, who had the courage to take her father to court in Pakistan despite many legal hurdles, secured an unprecedented judgment against the father for raping her. These young girls are changing the world, not only for themselves but also for future generations.
Like Martin Luther King’s dream of race equality – a battle that is still ongoing – our challenge today is to make the world understand that ensuring equality is the right thing to do, the smart thing to do and a solution to many of the world’s problems.